Back off (excuse my French)

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Karen M. Davis sent me this (I've edited slightly, but this is basically a guest post by her):

A story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune displays a fine if rather inexplicable example of obscenity avoidance:

A man who got between a guy and the woman he was hitting says:

"I just simply say, 'Dude, that's enough,' [thinking] maybe he'll back off," Skripka said. "He got in my face. I didn't flinch. I said, 'Dude, back off,' pardon my French but that's the words I used. Then I finally said, 'Dude, what's your problem?' The next thing I know is I'm waking up on a gurney. I was knocked out cold."

"Dude, back off" requires the familiar "pardon my French" apology for obscenity? Somehow I don't think that's the words he used!

"Dude, back off" is a well-formed, appropriate, and non-obscene phrase for him to have used. There's no hint of expurgation here. It's not "Dude, ___ off" or "Dude [back] off": from the report, it looks like "back off" is actually what he said. And yet we get that reflexive apology.

Perhaps it was just because he knows that the kind of thing you say to an aggressor who's threatening you is not the kind of language that's appropriate for printing in a newspaper? An awareness of the possibility of register clash?


  1. Lukas said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 5:33 am

    Maybe he said something like "Dude, back the fuck off", but that got removed in editing.

  2. Bob Lieblich said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 6:40 am

    Maybe he didn't know how most people understand "Pardon my French." He may think it apologizes for anything impolite. Sorta like people's different understandings of "most" (used by me in this comment to indicate "78.29 percent or more").

  3. Bob C said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 8:29 am

    It always irks me when "French" is used as a humorous code word for obscene, profane, scatological, or any other offensive language.

  4. Brad said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 8:37 am

    There's a video of a press conference/interview, and from the video it certainly appears to be either self-censorship or extended meaning, rather than editing by a third party.

  5. Rodger C said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 8:38 am

    @Bob C: Sort of like "Chinese" for anything strange, complex, and (often) cruel.

  6. George said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 8:43 am

    I am curious about the origin of 'pardon my French?' Why is French considered obscene or the equivalent in the U.S? Is this also used in the UK?

  7. richard howland-bolton said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 8:57 am

    Definitely used in the UK (by older people?).
    The English traditionally think of the French as 'naughty', vide French postcards, French letters (condoms—again maybe past usage, but certainly in use up to the 80s when I left for America), etc.
    This is ironic when you think of what the French sometimes call us Goddamns.

  8. George said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 9:03 am

    @Richard: So, did we Americans get the expression from the Brits?

    Maybe we brought it back from 'over there.'

  9. richard howland-bolton said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 10:07 am

    @ George: 'Fraid I dunnow.
    The OED is interesting. Often seems to be used ironically: making the non-obscene non-non-obscene.

    3. a. euphem. Bad language, swearing, esp. in pardon (also excuse) my French.
    1845 E. J. WAKEFIELD Adventure in N.Z. I. 327 The enraged headsman spares no ‘bad French’ in explaining his motives.
    1865 H. SEDLEY Marian Rooke 342 Excuse my French.
    1895 Harper's Mag. Mar. 648/1 Palaces be durned! Excuse my French.
    1909 J. R. WARE Passing Eng. 171/1 Loosing French, violent language in English.
    1936 M. HARRISON All Trees were Green II. 104 A bloody sight better (pardon the French!) than most.
    1955 M. MCCARTHY Charmed Life (1956) ii. 52 ‘Damn fool,’ he said, vehemently, ‘pardon my French.’
    1966 A. LA BERN Goodbye Piccadilly xxv. 220 Well I'll be buggered. Excuse my French.
    1979 M. LEIGH Abigail's Party I, in Abigail's Party & Goose-pimples (1983) 28, I mean, to a film star, getting divorced is like going to the lavatory, if you'll pardon my French.
    2005 N.Y. Times Bk. Rev. 29 May 12/3 The a welcome change from theory-infected academic discourse, pardon my French.

  10. Sarra said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 10:14 am

    Could be that he's interpreting 'back' as 'backside', though Lieblich's comment above seems infinitely more likely – just wanted to pop that idea in.

  11. richard howland-bolton said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 10:18 am

    And further on perceived French naughtiness: think of 'French Maid' (say in a bedroom farce), 'French Kiss', or something like Hoffnung's famous "a French widow in every bedroom" which would have much less of an implication of "Oo! La! La!" were it a German widow or a Polynesian widow.
    Then, of course, there is the phrase "Oo! La! La!"…

  12. Nicholas Waller said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 11:04 am

    I think of "pardon my French" as being a subtle way to imply that you know your hearers are so pure in heart and soul they could not possibly understand whatever obscenity has just been uttered – to them, you're suggesting, it must be words from an incomprehensible foreign language.

    So you're not saying "pardon the obscenity" to the vicar's wife, for instance, which would be the case if French was simply a euphemism for Foul-Mouthed or Rude: that would suggest that she was well-versed in what "fuck" and the rest meant. Rather, you are implying that you said something like "pour encourager les autres, if you'll pardon the [deployment, in an English sentence, of] the French".

    The theory falls down a bit when you realise that many (most?) educated English-speaking people from mid-Victorian times on would be expected to know some French.

  13. George said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 11:05 am

    @Richard: Thanks for the etymology and explanations. This make good sense.

    As to the Star Tribune report, what seems strange is to quote "pardon my French" without leaving a blank or characters for the actual word(s) used. This hints that the paper left something out of he quote. Is this good journalism?

  14. deriuqer (emaN) said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 11:11 am

    I betcha this is a case of "Minnesota nice" on the part of the speaker, writer, and|or editor(s).

  15. Brad said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 11:19 am

    @George: The newspaper quote matches supplied footage of the press conference. In the press conference video, at 0:40 he says, I said, 'Dude, back off,' pardon my French but that's the words I used.' Then there's a flash cut on the video, and then he's saying "I just don't know why he …"

    If they edited the quote for the newspaper, then they edited the video sequence perfectly to eliminate any trace as well.

  16. George said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 11:39 am

    @Brad: This is strange. I now wonder if the guy was using the expression differently than in the usual and traditional sense. Maybe he interprets it to mean any strong language than might offend.

  17. Steve said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    There's also the German expression "zu leben wie Gott in Frankreich", formerly used to describe luxurious living.

  18. Karen said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

    @Brad: Wow. That's just … weird. He actually apologized for saying "Dude, back off", and used "Pardon my French" to do it?

    That's … actually much stranger than I originally thought.

  19. George said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 2:35 pm

    Don't we have to actually use 'French' in order to apologize for using it?

    That is why I suspect, if the quotes are correct, he is misusing the idiom. Would this be a form of malapropism (maybe, idiopropism)?

  20. Mike said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 3:17 pm

    Perhaps you're looking at this too seriously. I've seen "Pardon my French" used ironically in the same way before (sorry I don't have a reference), where it calls attention to the rather mild language used given the situation. Can anybody back this up with an example?

  21. richard howland-bolton said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

    @ Mike: "I've seen 'Pardon my French' used ironically"

    I thought I did :-)

    "Often seems to be used ironically: making the non-obscene non-non-obscene.

    1979 M. LEIGH Abigail's Party I, in Abigail's Party & Goose-pimples (1983) 28, I mean, to a film star, getting divorced is like going to the lavatory, if you'll pardon my French.
    2005 N.Y. Times Bk. Rev. 29 May 12/3 The a welcome change from theory-infected academic discourse, pardon my French."

  22. Alissa said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

    I also think it was intended to be ironic. I took it as pointing out that he didn't say anything that the other man should have knocked him out for, highlighting the (relatively) unprovoked nature of the attack.

  23. George said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

    I found several examples of ‘pardon my French’ in which no taboo words are used. These were unscientifically selected from the New York Times:

    1. “It was not just that rjh noted that "these trend lines you are drawing all over the place. Pardon my French, they are complete garbage" (Readers’ Comments, 7/24/10)

    2. “This is, if you'll pardon my French, a canard.” (MOVIE REVIEW
    In Praise of Love, 10/13/01)

    3. “. . the system which brought a formidable ratio 1/95 – 1% owns what 95% (suckers, pardon my French) together.” (Readers’ Comments, 6/10/10)

    4. “Pardon my French, Barbie; please give my regards to Ken and Kelly.” (Reader comment to Happy Birthday, Barbie, 1/5/09)

    #1 & 2 seem to involve language that might be offensive because of its candor. #3 Interprets ‘sucker’ as either vulgar or inappropriate slang. I don’t understand what the writer of #4 is expressing.

    So, these suggest that ‘pardon my French’ is also used to mean direct, candid, confrontational (maybe as in our article) or too slangy for the context.

  24. ignoramus said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

    Many of us illiterate ones only know bad "woords" in them there "fereign" lingos, so showing "manners",we use our natural enemies introduced to us by Caesar as an excuse for bleeping.

  25. Josef Fruehwald said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 5:24 pm

    It's known that the language people use for "It's all Greek to me" varies by language.

    I have to wonder if there's a similar phenomenon for "Pardon my French."

  26. Elizabeth said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 10:33 pm

    My son said "part of my French" when he was about 6. I was so amused I forgot to scold him for saying "dammit."

  27. Samuel Baldwin said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 11:44 pm

    Also strange in that quote: "but that's the words I used". I can't say I've heard that one before. "That's the wording" or "those're the words", but not "that's the words". Is it a dialect thing?

  28. Ben said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 12:52 am

    I definitely think his use was intended ironically. When I first read the quote, I assumed it was a newspaper-editing stumble. But since the video confirms that this is what he actually said, I really don't think any non-ironic explanation is good enough (the idea that he mis-used an idiom based on lack of experience with it is a sensible idea, but I don't believe it's a likely one). It's hard to say though — if I had heard the quote live and in context before reading the transcript, I'd like to believe the ironic intent would be clear, but I can't say for sure.

    @Samuel, "that's the words I used" sounds fine to me, and barely registers as a mistake on my radar (I didn't notice it until you pointed it out). I don't think it's a dialect thing so much as a slip of the tongue that is easily skipped over in context. You know what he's getting at before he even utters "words", so you are primed for some noun referring to what he just said — the fact that the noun turns out to be plural doesn't change the analysis and as a listener it's easy to ignore. And from his perspective, you can see that such an error might be produced for a similar reason — he already said "that's the", trying to connectively reference "that" (what he just said) with a description, and "words" is what came out. Again, the fact that it's plural doesn't change the situation very much.

  29. Josh said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 12:59 am

    For what it's worth, I'm a born-n-raised Minnesota boy, and I did get in trouble with my mom if I used any figurative form of the word suck. I could suck on a straw, suck up dirt with a vacuum or buy a sucker at the candy store. Any other sense of the word was not allowed.

    That quote doesn't sound strange to me. I parse it as "but that's the [collection of] words I used." He's not referring to the words individually, but the phrase as a whole. What's interesting about that construction is that just by switching the verb from plural to singular he can make a distinction between "words" as a count-noun and "words" as a mass-noun. It reminds me of the different ways UK and US English speakers refer to corporate entities.

    In the UK you'd have a sentence like:
    BP are selling assets to pay for the oil spill.
    In the US:
    BP is selling assets to pay for the oil spill.

    Of course, in the US, we give corporations all the rights we give to individuals, so perhaps it's only fitting our grammar treats them a singular entity as well.

  30. Q. Pheevr said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 5:21 am

    @George – In your example #2, "pardon my French" could well be being used entirely literally. But in #1, at least, I agree that it seems to be flagging "language that might be offensive because of its candor." (A folk-etymologist could probably make up a good story here about frankness → Frankish → French, but I won't.)

  31. Q. Pheevr said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 5:42 am

    @George again – Oh, and the mysterious #4 also appears to be literal; here's the context:

    Happy (Belated) Birthday, Barbie! Did you know that your joie de vivre is both acknowledged and appreciated by countless individuals across the globe? C’est vrai!

    Pardon my French, Barbie; please give my regards to Ken and Kelly.

    "Pardon my French" here is apparently an apology for joie de vivre and c'est vrai.

  32. George said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 6:46 am

    @Q Pheer: Thanks, good observations. It didn't occur to me that the speaker was using 'canard' as French-French since it is a fully assimilated word and has lost its foreignness. Your explanation for #4 is undoubtedly correct.

    @Josh: When I was young (mid last century), 'suck' was definitely taboo. Still, if I were to use it 'in polite company,' I would feel the need to ask that my French be pardoned. However, it seems to have lost its original metaphorical meaning. I heard Obama use it not long ago. It is a similar situation with 'screw.'

  33. Faith said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 5:58 pm

    French? I've always heard and used "pardon my Dutch," which makes sense to me because I've also always heard that "fuck" comes from Dutch. I don't know "pardon my French" and it sounds strange to me.

  34. Sid Smith said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 8:20 pm

    "In the UK you'd have a sentence like:
    BP are selling assets to pay for the oil spill."

    As a Brit I can tell you that this isn't so.

  35. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 7, 2010 @ 12:25 am

    Then there's the rude guest who takes French leave (leaves the party without thanking or saying good-bye to the host). The equivalent French expression is apparently "filer a l'Anglaise" (to flee or leave as the English).

    There's a thread about this from 2007 at:

    One post says the Russian equivalent is "to take English leave," which may have been borrowed from the French. Comments say Italian and Hungarian say to take English leave, but Portuguese is said to use "French leave," which makes sense given Portugal's long trade relationship with England. One writer suggests both idioms originally referred to desertion from the military, a theory I had not heard before.

    A Google books result in the volume "A Glossary of Colloquial and Popular French for the Use of English Readers …" by L. E. Kastner (1929) focuses on etiquette and is similar to the background instructors in French passed on to me — so it reflects a popular folk belief whether or not it is linguistically correct:

    "The original form of this expression is 'prendre conge a l'anglaise ' (lit. 'to take leave (say good-bye) in the English manner') which meant firstly, to say good-bye in the English manner, simply by shaking hands, instead of kissing or bowing ceremoniously; then it came to mean without delay or without dallying over long effusions, and finally, to go away without saying good-bye at all. The English language returns the compliment with 'to take French leave,' but it should be noted that although this may correspond to the French expression, i.e., to depart without giving notice, it more frequently signifies, 'to act without asking leave.'


    I've heard 'pardon my French' lately several times after years of not hearing it at all. Is there some TV show or other pop culture source that is bringing it to the fore? If not, then it is just coincidence. I wonder if French has a "pardon my English" equivalent.

  36. Josh said,

    August 7, 2010 @ 1:29 am

    Perhaps my particular phrasing wasn't consistent with British English, but it didn't take a whole lot of googling to find plenty of websites that illustrate the differences in how BrE and AmE treat collective nouns. Some of the highlights:

  37. Sid Smith said,

    August 7, 2010 @ 6:43 am

    @ Josh

    Apologies: I was off to bed and therefore a little abrupt.

    Yes, us Brits can certainly say "BP are selling assets to pay for the oil spill", but it isn't usually the proper, formal style: organisations are supposed to be singular.

    Thus you would say "Manchester United is up for sale" [ie, an organisation] but "Manchester United were terrible against Spurs" [the players].

  38. Sid Smith said,

    August 7, 2010 @ 6:59 am

    @ Josh

    Just seen your links to various online authorities. Thank you. Yes, there does seem to be this idea of BrE using the plural for organisations more often than AmE.

    Perhaps we're more casual about this than our cousins across the sea, but I'd still bet that where language is governed by house rules (newspapers, the BBC, etc) the singular rule would be the norm: it certainly is at The (London) Times. The exception, as suggested by your authorities and my Man U example, being when an organisation is considered as separate individuals.

  39. tablogloid said,

    August 7, 2010 @ 10:17 am

    Heard on a golf course: "Pardon my French, but why do you use so much f*cking body English after your shot."

  40. Areios said,

    August 8, 2010 @ 5:58 am

    Maybe there's some kind of "frankly" or "frankness" hiding behind that phrase, which has been falsely etymologized to "French" later on. Curiously, a German equivalent for announcing very informal speech (but not as excusing as "Pardon my French") would be "auf gut Deutsch" meaning "in good German".

    Pardon my English, as my mother tongue is German.

  41. Bloix said,

    August 8, 2010 @ 10:38 pm

    I have heard people say "pardon my French" to mean "forgive me for being blunt" – sort of like, "no offense," or "just saying." I think of it as a mistake, but my mistake is your evolving language.

  42. Alon Lischinsky said,

    August 12, 2010 @ 10:46 am

    @Josef Fruehwald

    It's known that the language people use for "It's all Greek to me" varies by language.

    I have to wonder if there's a similar phenomenon for "Pardon my French."

    None that I know of in Spanish (my native language), or any other I'm fluent in. We've borrowed "take French leave" as "despedirse a la francesa" and "French disease" as "mal francés", but this one has resisted appropiation, probably because the taboo on offensive language has never been so marked in Spain. The closest equivalent is "hablando en plata", literally "speaking in silver", which is more of an excuse for being frank (although I have no clue as to the exact origin of the phrase) than for being vulgar.

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